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One Thing Leads to Another

The longer I work with horses, the more I can see the connections between various concepts, through and across disciplines, and how one small thing leads easily to another more complicated thing. 


This means I can often guess where the hole is in a horse's training when I see an undesirable behavior expressed at an inopportune moment. For example, when a horse is spooking at a strip of light or wet spot on the ground, I can figure out what they likely have and have not been allowed to do along their training path and predict the things they will probably find challenging in life. 


Lucky for us, there are some really simple ways that we can help a horse relate to new objects and ideas that will make our lives so much easier when it comes to bigger questions we may need to ask – like loading into a trailer or crossing a puddle, or stepping over a strip of light in the arena.


Horses are afraid of things that are unpredictable and move quickly towards them in an erratic way, especially when they are loud and squeeze them into a place they can’t escape from. These things are assumed to be dangerously predatory, and as prey animals, it’s a horse’s job to panic and flee the scene in the face of such predators.


We as humans then assume our prey animals should willingly get into a tiny, loud, moving box and happily be transported away from the safe predictability of home to an unknown location to do who knows what, and then get frustrated when our horse won’t easily load into a trailer.


If we know what horses are afraid of, we can help them by becoming the opposite.  We can move scary things in predictable patterns, away from them, slowly, rhythmically, and quietly, in a space where they have the freedom to move away if they choose to.  We can introduce new things so that horses become curious and even brave.  They will then begin to willingly try new things, knowing that what we ask them to explore won’t hurt them and that we will provide encouraging and helpful input if they aren’t sure what to do.


We have to learn the signs that our horse is trying to figure something out in order to help them try harder.  We have to see when they are overwhelmed before they tip into panic, and we have to let them take a break when we recognize that they have reached their maximum capacity for new information. 


Every horse has a different threshold for discomfort and challenge, but there are some universal signs that horses give to tell us how close they are to that threshold.  


You can think of it like your horse giving you a green light to ask for more, a yellow light to say they need to go slowly, or a red light to say they need a minute to process and de-escalate before continuing.


Green light signals are things like licking and chewing, blinking, lowering their head, and taking a deep breath. Yellow light signals are things like rapid sniffing, cocking their head, wide eyes, pricked ears, side stepping, twitching skin.  Red light signals are things like turning or backing away quickly, tail flagging, dragon-breathing snorts, and kicking or biting.  Maybe your horse has their own unique green, yellow, or right light signal – it’s your job to recognize them and make your plan to help them accordingly. 


To practice, I like to start by introducing them to a simple new object from the ground. Maybe a chair, or a blanket on the rail of the arena, or a folded-up tarp, or a low pedestal. I approach the object without a specific goal, confidently, and only with my own curiosity. 



I wonder what my horse will think of this new thing. How will they react? How can I help them gather information without feeling anxious? I take my time, and every time my horse gives me a green light, I feel free to explore ever more closely.  


When my horse gives me a yellow light, I pause, allowing my horse to feel comfortable where they are before proceeding.  If I get a red light, I stop. I breathe and set the tone to relaxation by palpably showing my own relaxation. I tell my horse that there is no goal and that I am not in a hurry with my body language. When red turns to yellow or green again, we explore some more –step by step, inch by curious inch. We build trust in each other, allowing us to confidently walk into new territory together.  


There is no exact playbook. There is only being in the moment with your horse – watching, feeling, and allowing them to feel. Encouraging and allowing them to take their time, whatever that means.  


For some horses, that will mean they march up to the new object, stomp on it and bite it, turning it into a play thing. For some, it will mean that they sniff it and move on with their lives without a second thought. For some, it will mean that you get within ten feet of it and that’s all they can do that day. The next day, they get within five feet. There cannot be an end goal.  You will rarely get the baulky horse onto a trailer the morning of the show when you absolutely must leave within ten minutes.  


That’s not how horses operate, so you might as well slow down, take a step back, and approach things differently for the sake of both of your sanities.




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